September 29, 2015

The realities of chicken ownership

When I first got chickens, I had this idyllic image of what it would be like. I had seen the pins of shabby chic cottage retreats for chickens with cute reupholstered armchairs and clever chicken related art and I thought: yeah, I got this.

the realities of chicken ownership.

 I got three pullets who were flighty and didn’t want anything to do with me. They would stand in their run, eyeing me suspiciously while I tried, and failed at, gaining their trust. I had read that sitting outside their run everyday would help them get used to me. Seriously, who has time for that?! I did it twice and was so bored, I gave up, totally deflated. I had had this fantasy of having docile hens who wandered around with me while I gardened or would perch on my shoulder like a parrot as I surveyed my backyard wearing an expression of experienced calm. But once I actually let them free range my yard, it was a different story. Every time I came near them, they would run away. It didn’t matter how slowly I moved, whether I called their names and clucked at them in this soft clucky way I imagined a legit chicken owner would; it didn’t even matter that I had delicious treats in my hand: they’d bolt for the nearest shrub for cover. It was weeks of wandering around the backyard, cooing like a lunatic, my pockets full of random seeds and bread crusts, for them to even get semi-used to me. They didn’t flee in panic, but would sidestep behind the bee balm; they no longer squawked in fear, but still gave me baleful glances. It took the whole summer of living with these angsty girls before things began to change. Eventually, instead of running from me, they started flocking to me when they saw me grab my shovel to garden or weed . It wasn’t the idyllic fantasy I’d had of gardening with the girls clucking merrily at my side: it was a carnivorous free for all. They’d throw themselves head first into every hole I’d dig, heedless of the sharp shovel blade dangling inches from their head. So desperate were they to be the first to suck up a worm that they’d bodily push under my hands to gobble up the goods before anyone else. It was funny. At first. But then it got a bit annoying. You see, now I’m forever tripping over chickens, constantly scanning the terrain as I dig, making sure I don’t accidentally decapitate an overly zealous hen. I’ve had hens jump on my back to get a good vantage point while I’m on my hands and knees pulling weeds. They use me as a human rototiller: I do all the work, they get all the reward.  Don’t let their little clucky noises and purring fool you: chickens don’t actually want to be your friend.  After being pecked a few times, I realized too, that having a chicken on my shoulder like some weird pirate farmer, was short-sighted and totally naive (obviously). Chickens spend 60% of their day foraging (which is scratching and pecking), therefore any time spent with you isn’t because they think you’re awesome (which you probably are) or because they love you (which they definitely should), rather it’s an opportunity to taste-test that pinky finger, cute little piggy toe, the errant hair that has escaped from your ponytail, glasses lens, shiny bits of metal on your shoes, or pants, etc. etc. etc.


the realities of chicken ownership.

I hate to be the bearer of bad (and potentially surprising news), but Chickens are noisy. Let me preface this by saying, they are not noisy all the time. But when they start up, they can get pretty rowdy. Hens have an egg song. I’m not sure every hen does it, but mine do. Every day. It lasts about 15 seconds and it’s this funny brock brock brock, over and over again. Hens don’t just do it when they lay eggs. They do it when other hens lay eggs too, like they just have to be a part of the egg laying celebration or something. They also do it if someone’s in their favourite nesting spot. They also do it when your daughter goes outside and starts egg songing it up while you’re trying to get dinner started and you can’t find the menu you had planned and even if you could you’re pretty sure you forgot to get the stupid cauliflower when you were at the store anyway. They are also noisy if something scares them. One of them will sound the alarm, and then it’s game over. They all start screeching and flapping and running aimlessly around. Sometimes one will just stand there and do the predator screech, out in the open, totally unprotected, because it seems like a smart thing to do when there’s a hawk overhead. I mean, that’s what I’d do if faced with a teradactyl or something. Obviously. Sometimes when things annoy the chickens, like the door to the run is shut when they want it open or the wind is blowing the trees around or there’s a toy on the lawn that wasn’t there before, they’ll make a fuss. The worst part about the noise is on lovely summer evenings when neighbours are on their back decks, having barbecues with the family,  and the girls decide to start a chorus line, and I’m running around the backyard, whisper-shouting  shut up! Seriously chickens, shut UP! People are trying to eat their burgers in peace, and you’re being all dramatic because it’s Wednesday at 6 and you’ve realized you haven’t made a sound all day. I mean how can we have this renegade chicken operation if everyone knows we have chickens?! It would be like the worst secret club. Ever.

Chickens don’t care about your secret clubs. Chickens also don’t care if your backyard is pristine. In fact, they like clean things. It makes their poop look so artistically juxtaposed. Chickens poop like a hundred times a day, and each poop looks different. Trust me. There are pages of photos of chicken poop you can Google (I won’t even make you Google: look here) to make sure your chickens’ poops are normal. But at the end of the day, chicken poop is chicken poop and if there is one single poop on my deck, I will subconsciously be drawn to it and then step in it. Chicken poop is slippery (#askmehowiknow).

When the weather’s nice, we’ll have people over and sit outside because that’s what you do when it’s warm and sunny and you want to have beverages and snacks and act all civilized. And the chickens are so nosy/spoiled pigs, that they automatically find their way over to clean decks and hors d’oeuvres and will stand around demonstrating their disgust in not being invited to the party, by pooping near unexpected guests’ feet. Then they act all like, what?! I was just standing here doing absolutely nothing, when a guest steps on said poop. Our good friend, noted after a summertime visit/chicken stand-off, that we used to be so cool and had such a great backyard before we had chickens. Now though, according to him, we’ve not only lost our coolness, but also our hosting skills and the chicken poop on the deck sums it up. You kind reader, have accurately noted to yourself that I did call him a good friend. Good friends aren’t always good constructive criticizers or kind word enthusiasts. But good friends sometimes get their chicken poop karma comeuppance (see below) and then I can laugh about it until I slip on chicken poop again. Then I kind of agree. Stupid chickens.

Chicken poop is part of the backyard chicken deal.  But poop doesn’t have to rule you.  It can be tamed.  Sort of.  See the amount of poop you have to clean is entirely proportional to how many chickens you allow to free range in your backyard. More chickens=more poop. I am a firm believer in a daily clean (90% of the time anyway). A quick pressure wash heals all wounds.

Speaking of poop: as a chicken owner there will come a time that you will probably inadvertently get some on your hands, feet, clothing, or heaven forbid, in your mouth.  I’ll just sum this part up by saying, when you are doing your seasonal coop clean and decide it would be an awesome idea to use the pressure washer to clean every nook and cranny, I’d highly recommend wearing a mask, and goggles, and gloves, and a hazmat suit. Enough said.

And finally on the subject of poop: sometimes people who do not own your chickens will eat poop if they’re not careful and if karma is on your side. The aforementioned good friend, ironically on the very same day that he declared us devoid of coolness and host-dead, experienced the following cosmically-pleasing event. As he was leaving, we stood at the door saying goodbye, thanks for coming and telling us how much we suck, yet again. When for some unknown, but definitely hilarious reason, upon looking at his index knuckle, noting there was a dark brown fleck of unknown origins on it, proceeded to raise the knuckle to his mouth and lick it off. Now I think it’s fair to say there is a universal rule somewhere that states: never put anything unknown and brown in your mouth. What followed this would’ve been YouTube worthy, had I had the insight to record our interaction. He began dry heaving in my hostas, blaming me in between gags for the situation.  I stood there staring, almost not comprehending the situation. And then I said to him, why would you lick something off your hand if you didn’t know what it was? And his answer: I thought it was chocolate. I took a beat. Let that sink in, then said, but we didn’t have chocolate.   I did offer water. I’m not an animal.

You may lose friends, slide around on poop, constantly try to shush your noisy little egg makers, but you will also want more. It’s guaranteed; they even have a term for it: chicken math. Chicken math supposedly works like this: when you get your first chickens you should prepare for the inevitably that you will definitely want more chickens. That, my friend, is true. I went from happily having three hens to madly contemplating ways to double that, even triple that, in my small backyard. I suddenly had these daydreams of wandering through a field, alive with chickens of all colours and breeds, happily pecking at the seeds I scattered from the pockets of my Disney princess-esque apron, my hair gently blowing around my face as songbirds floated merrily on the breeze, singing for the sheer pleasure of it.  Forgetting, of course that I live in a neighbourhood, with neighbours, and no field, and that my deck is always in a state of chicken poop clean off.  Some days I rue ever getting chickens, like when it’s thirty below and I’m trudging in waist deep snow at 6am to make sure the chickens’ water didn’t freeze overnight, or when I’ve spent half an hour poking in and out of my backyard hidey holes trying to flush out a hen who wants to party all night instead of going to roost.  But it is those glorious, perfect, free range eggs that come from the egg singing, poop making, skin pecking chickens that make it all seem worth it.



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